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Monday, February 4, 2008
Golden generations face off

OK, now that the Super Bowl is over -- Eli Manning's mind-blowing third-down completion to David Tyree, greatest Super Bowl play ever? -- my attention is switched back to the upcoming U.S.-Mexico clash (Feb. 6, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2). As I said the other day, I'm expecting a great clash between these two heated rivals, and more so because I think this game actually represents what will be a new era in the U.S.-Mexico series.

The recent dominance of the U.S. over Mexico on home soil is well-documented (8-0-1 mark in its last nine matches), and up till now the games have mostly followed the same script. Pregame trash-talking from Mexico, followed by a game where Mexico dominated technically and in terms of possession and yet lost. The post-game routine usually consisted of Mexico stating it was the better team and how it didn't deserve to lose.

However, this edition of the Mexican team is different, it's basically the new generation and reflects an ongoing youth movement that coach Hugo Sanchez is introducing. Gone is the pre-game trash talking -- Mexico seems to be showing more respect to the U.S. these days. But more importantly, with the introduction of a new group of talent (players such as Guillermo Ochoa, Gio Dos Santos and Carlos Vela who promise to be upgrades over their predecessors), gone too is the psychological burden that weighed down the veterans on previous Mexican teams and seemed to affect their overall play and ability to finish chances (Omar Bravo being a prime example of this). In their stead is a younger, fearless, more dangerous offensive squad that I think will pose more of a threat to the U.S. team than in previous clashes (even without the talented pair of Nery Castillo and Andres Guardado).

As for the U.S., coach Bob Bradley's called up a very strong squad too and with the additions of Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu -- we're probably going to see the first clash between the two countries' respective "Golden Generation" talents on the world stage. With Twellman out injured, I'm expecting to see Altidore start up top with Dempsey, with Adu making a second-half appearance as a sub.

The American Abroad

Right now there's only one American player playing abroad that is garnering all the attention and that of course is midfielder Michael Bradley. The son of the U.S. coach has erased beyond all doubt any suggestion by his critics that he owes his place in the national team solely due to his last name. He's currently in the midst of a goal-scoring streak of epic proportions. This past weekend, he scored his 12th goal of the season for Heerenveen and currently ranks fourth in the league. How impressive a tally is that? Well, consider he's tied with Feyenoord's Roy Makaay, a striker of some note, with that total. There's no doubt that Bradley's destined for a move this summer with a host of big-name clubs (and I don't mean Reading and Fulham) currently watching him -- the only question that remains at this point is just how good can he be? Are we witnessing the emergence of a true world-class player for the U.S.?

I'll be the first to admit I originally had Bradley pegged as just a good defensive midfielder with some upside -- a player who if he kept improving, could start at a mid-tier English Premier team like a Middlesbrough or a Blackburn. In a best-case scenario, I projected him as an Owen Hargreaves-type or a more physical version of Michael Carrick. However, his recent goal-scoring form, (provided he can maintain it), suggests he could potentially be more than that. Before U.S. fans get overly excited though, it's important to remember Bradley's limitations as an offensive player -- he's not beating players off the dribble and he's not scoring You Tube-worthy stunning goals. Actually, pretty much all of his goals are more or less carbon copies of each other -- they're simply the product of extremely well-timed runs into the penalty box and cleaning up from relatively short range.

More significant is the fact that he's also proven he can carry this over on the international stage, scoring exactly that type of goal in the U.S.' 1-0 win over Switzerland last October. It's obvious that Bradley has developed a great knack and instinct for being in the right place at the right time -- so while he's never going to be say a Michael Ballack or a Steven Gerrard (he just doesn't have the same creativity or ability to strike the ball that they do) -- what he is turning into is that rare defensive midfielder that can actually score on a consistent basis.

At this point, Bradley's starting to look like a cross between Hargreaves and former England international David Platt -- and if he indeed reaches that level, he'll become the first U.S. field player that you could realistically argue could start for many of the top national teams around the world. On the other hand, U.S. fans still need to keep their perspective about Bradley and temper the hype. He's never going to be a No. 10-type and nor is he going to be the elite offensive player or attacking midfielder that the U.S. will need if its to finally make the leap up to the next level. What he is though, with his current rate of improvement, is a valuable building block for the national team for the next decade.